Arthur Taylor stepped into Steve Campbell’s life randomly on that day some 20 years ago. Taylor was the man on the other end of the phone when Campbell, an aspiring fly rod builder, was trying to sell some of his wares in the local buy-it and sell-it guide.
Had Campbell already sold the items he had advertised, this story might well be different. Likewise, had Taylor not bought a copy of Uncle Henry’s guide that week, this story wouldn’t be told.
But Campbell hadn’t. And Taylor had. And the young craftsman picked up the ringing phone and had a conversation that changed his life.
“There was this guy saying he was calling about the rods in Uncle Henry’s,” Campbell recounted this week. “He said he was from Lee. I told him that I had refinished them and I was a beginning rod maker. He told me he had been a rod maker as well, and was getting out of it. Through the conversation, it turned out that he had a lot more stuff to sell than I had. So rather than him coming to Bangor, I went to Lee.”
That was the first of many trips to Lee for Campbell, who was in his early 20s at the time. Taylor, in his 60s, had just become his friend, his mentor and a driving force in his life.
On Sunday, Campbell drove to Lee again, under much more somber circumstances.
Once there, he told an assembled group of Taylor’s friends and family members how much that friendship meant to him. Taylor, an artist, rod maker, salmon angler and conservationist, died on April 25. He was 84 years old.
Nowadays, Campbell is the proud owner of the venerable Thomas Rod Co. and makes beautiful bamboo fly rods that customers cherish, collect and trade. Back then, he was a young guy with an interest in bamboo rods who was spending his spare cash at antique shops.
He’d find a well-worn old bamboo rod, haggle a bit and pay $25 for it. Then he’d take it home, do a little restoration work and resell it. He was trying to build his first rod from scratch when Taylor called, Campbell recalls. He had read some books, and was eager to learn the craft. All he needed was a boost … an ear to bend … a mentor.
He got that, and much more.
“I said at the service last Sunday, ‘Twenty years ago, the whole world changed for me, when I met him.’ None of this would be without Arthur,” he said, gesturing at the well-appointed showroom and the vintage Thomas rods hanging from the walls. “I was learning to make rods, but he introduced me to everything and everyone in the bamboo world. I wouldn’t have met Sam Carlson, who is the man I bought the Thomas Rod Company from, if it wasn’t for Arthur. Arthur was friends with him. Arthur was friends with everybody.”
Taylor had the rod-making equipment and had made all the mistakes a dozen times. Campbell had a few restored rods and a lot of curiosity.
Campbell says he has still never seen anyone else build a bamboo rod — not even Taylor — but he knew that when he struggled with one or another of the many intricate steps required to craft a utilitarian piece of art, Taylor would be able to steer him in the right direction with a few words.
Taylor was a successful commercial artist in Boston and New York before moving to Lee with his wife, Ruth, in 1966. According to his obituary, the couple was seeking the “good life.”
They found it in Ruth’s hometown of Lee.
Arthur Taylor was an avid Atlantic salmon angler and a passionate defender of the species.
When Bangor Hydro proposed the Basin Mills dam on the Penobscot, Taylor stepped forward to help lead opposition to the project.
“What other industry do you know that gets its raw material for nothing?” Arthur wrote in a piece that appeared in the BDN in 1991. “Our state representatives should be looking into this, in an era of budget shortfalls. After all, the water in our rivers belongs to all the people of this state, not a select few.”
“It is important to remember that the salmon returns that now exist, despite all the problems, are an important resource to the state of Maine; particularly with a larger percentage of wild origin fish returning. This alone presents an optimistic picture,” Taylor wrote.
Taylor could debate the merits of a new dam with passion, but he never lost his cool. Campbell said his friend just wasn’t wired that way.
“Arthur is just the nicest, most easy to be friends with guy that ever lived,” Campbell said. “I’ve never met anybody who didn’t think he was the nicest guy in the world.”
Campbell learned just how well liked Taylor was early in their friendship.
“We went to [trade] shows together, down in Massachusetts, with all these huge names and thousands of awesome rods were on display for sale,” Campbell remembered. “I’m just following Arthur around and every person there is [saying], ‘Hi, Arthur. Hi, Arthur.’ He knew everybody and was introducing me to everybody.”
Everybody, including Sam Carlson, who had bought the Thomas Rod Co. and was known as a legendary rod maker. Eventually, Carlson decided he wanted to sell the company … and he decided the young man from Brewer, Maine, was the person who should own it.
All thanks to Arthur Taylor, Campbell still claims.
In these parts, Taylor’s artwork is not difficult to find. Walk into a sporting lodge or a place where anglers meet and you’re likely to find a print of his distinctive work.
At NASA, there’s a permanent exhibit of his work. Near the famed salmon rivers of Canada, you’re likely to see Taylor’s renditions of various pools, guides and sports on camp walls.
And on Campbell’s walls, you’ll see plenty of examples of Taylor’s craftsmanship. Campbell owns two of the 36 fly rods that Taylor built, including the famous Nova Scotia Special that was featured in two Taylor paintings. He also has prints of various Taylor paintings hanging in places of honor in the Thomas Rod Co. shop, showroom, and in his home.
Earlier this week, though saddened by his friend’s passing, Campbell was eager to reflect on the man’s work, his art and his life.
“A perfect example [of who Arthur was]: There was an article written about him in the Atlantic Salmon Journal, written by somebody I don’t know,” Campbell said. “Of all the things for the title of the story to be, in big letters, was ‘Mr. Nice Guy.’ That was Arthur.”
Campbell said he traveled with Taylor, regularly visited his Lee home and was constantly amazed by the way the artist dealt with the people he encountered.
“He was just always positive, happy. I don’t ever remember him saying anything bad about anybody,” Campbell said. “He was very soft-spoken, slow-moving. [In] his part of the world, life moved a little slower and a little carefree.”
Kind of like the meandering salmon rivers that Taylor loved so much.